In just a few weeks, the United Nations is convening a world gathering to discuss the health of the world’s oceans and seas, with member states, government and nongovernmental organizations, corporations and members of the scientific community and academia signed up to take part.
Yet while representatives from America’s private sector and academic community — even the state of California — will be participating, so far it is not clear what role, if any, the United States government, the UN’s most important member, will take in the conference.
To be held June 5 to 9 at UN headquarters in New York City, the main objective of the conference is to support the implementation of sustainable development goal No. 14, which calls to “conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.”
The predecessor to the SDGs, as they are called, did not reference the ocean or seas in a single goal. The conference agenda is wide ranging, with panel discussions on financing the “blue economy” for small island developing nations to “women and girls in science for ocean.”
“If the cycle of decline that accumulated human activity has brought upon the ocean is not reversed, the implications for us all cannot be good,” said UN General Assembly President Peter Thomson in a newsletter from the conference’s co-chairs, Sweden and Fiji. (Thomson is Fijian.) “Anyone who cares about the health of the ocean can and should get involved.”
While the US has agreed to participate in the conference — showing up, at a minimum — a State Department press officer said that planning for the meeting, which is the first to focus on a single development goal, was “ongoing.” The office added that it had nothing else to offer at this time.
Another State Department official, who also asked not to be named, told PassBlue that the US was finalizing its delegation, including who would serve as the delegation’s head, and that “we intend to be actively engaged in the June Conference.”
Press officers at the US mission to the UN, which is still in a period of transition since Trump took office, did not respond to emails for comment.
Low-ranking US mission employees have been attending negotiations on the conference’s summary statement, or “call for action.” Moreover, the State Department maintains a Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs; its acting assistant secretary is Judith Garber.
While the conference will attract governments and other major representatives from across the world — as every nation has a connection to the ocean — a UN organizer said that the hope was that a powerful country or individual would initiate actions to get the world to pay closer attention to SDG 14 and the state of the oceans, which cover 75 percent of the planet.
That could mean the US, the person said. After all, Trump owns many resorts located on oceanfront property, deriving profit from such views, access and cooling effects. Mar-a-Lago, his private home and private golf club in Palm Beach, Fla., is minutes from the Atlantic.
“Oceans contributed more than 3 million jobs and $300 billion to the U.S. GDP,” Jacqueline Savitz, a senior vice president for U.S. Oceans and Global Fishing Watch at Oceana, an advocacy group, noted. “Much of that depends on ocean health, which in turn depends on international action. That’s why the U.S. simply can’t afford not to lead on ocean protection, so we hope to see a continuation of U.S. leadership at the UN Oceans Conference.”
The conference comes on the heels of the Arctic Council ministerial-level meeting held earlier this month in Fairbanks, Alaska, offering a window as to how the US may approach the UN event. The Council, comprised of eight Arctic nations that include the US, completed its two-year chairmanship at the gathering.
The ministers issued a final statement, the Fairbanks Declaration 2017, reaffirming the Council’s commitment to maintaining peace, stability and constructive cooperation, among other crucial aspects to the future of the Arctic Circle.
Climate change was on the Fairbanks agenda. “Noting with concern that the Arctic is warming at more than twice the rate of the global average,” the declaration also recognized “the entry into force of the Paris Agreement on climate change and its implementation, and reiterating the need for global action to reduce both long-lived greenhouse gases and short-lived climate pollutants.”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended the conference as chairman of the Council and signed the declaration, despite the Trump administration’s wavering over whether to remain a party to the Paris Agreement. (Garber of the Oceans bureau in the State Department also attended.)
The Council meeting also follows an executive order issued by Trump directing a review of offshore oil and gas exploration in the Arctic, reversing Obama’s Arctic leasing ban. (A question by this reporter to Garber’s office about the order was directed to the White House.)
Negotiators on the Oceans Conference call for action are also wrestling with references to the Paris Agreement. The latest version of the document said it recognized “the particular importance of the Paris Agreement,” but discussions continue from May 22 to 25 at the UN, so that language could be dropped or changed.
Many environmental challenges hurt the ocean, as a background note for the conference said: “Marine pollution and litter, 80 percent of which come from land-based sources, compromise ocean health.”
A quarter of all carbon dioxide released through human activity is absorbed by the oceans and raises the seawaters’ acidity, and nearly one-third of all fish stocks are below sustainable levels, up from 10 percent in 1974. The note also stated that the deterioration of coastal and marine ecosystems and habitats has a more severe and immediate impact on vulnerable groups, such as small island developing states like Fiji.
The conference will feature plenary meetings, partnership “dialogues” in which less-developed nations will chair events with richer countries, and a commemoration of World Oceans Day on June 8.
In February, when negotiations began on the call for action and the partnership-dialogue themes, the US participated in both segments.
“The United States views the Conference as an opportunity to focus on tangible areas for cooperation, without developing a new or amended UN ocean agenda,” its official meeting statement read.
It added, more critically, “While we remain flexible on the content of the Call for Action at this time, we would not want to see inclusion in the document of the creation of new bodies or high-level positions, language that would pre-judge the outcomes of any ongoing negotiations, nor do we believe the Call for Action should call for additional, follow-on conferences for SDG 14 considering the overlap and synergies among the various SDGs.”
A key focus of the conference is the presenting of voluntary commitments by governments, companies and others pledging action on conservation. With 189 commitments so far, these pledges represent governments that include France, Spain, Nigeria, Indonesia, Belgium, Grenada, Fiji, Palau and Sweden.
California, with its long Pacific Ocean border, has seven commitments registered, such as a plan to preserve its coastal ecosystems and prepare for rising sea levels.
University involvements include Arizona State’s Biogeography, Conservation and Modeling Laboratory, which researches fishery policies; and Northeastern University, which has created a Coastal Sustainability Institute to respond to environmental threats facing marine habitats.
In the private sector, Envision Plastics, from North Carolina, has announced a goal of removing up to 10 million pounds of plastic that could pollute the oceans over the next two years. Dell has committed to processing plastics collected from beaches, waterways and coasts to incorporate in new packaging of its computers.
The following countries will be paired for the partnership dialogues, emphasizing the rich state-developed state theme: Australia-Kenya, Iceland-Peru, Canada-Senegal, Estonia-Grenada, Italy-Palau, Monaco-Mozambique and Norway-Indonesia.
The US, notably, is not among them.
An annual Our Oceans global conference — not focused on SDG 14 — has been held for the last three years at different locations; this year, it is to be hosted in Malta in October.
Our Oceans is meant to enlist specific steps by nations to protect and mitigate climate effects on the world’s vast waters. Last year, the forum convened in Washington, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, an ocean lover cultivated through a family-owned island off Massachusetts, called Naushon, and a house on Nantucket (recently sold for a move by Kerry and his wife, Teresa Heinz, to Martha’s Vineyard).
“We have to keep the momentum going so that we can come together and protect our ocean,” Kerry said at the conference. “Why? Because our ocean is absolutely essential for life itself — not just the food, but the oxygen and weather cycles of the planet all depend on the ocean.”
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Lori Silberman Brauner is an award-winning journalist, editor and freelance writer who most recently served as deputy managing editor at the New Jersey Jewish News. She received a B.A. in political science from Muhlenberg College; an M.A. in international affairs from Drew University; and an M.S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. She was one of 10 North American journalists who took part in a ICFJ-UN Foundation Reporting Fellowship in September 2016 to explore the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.